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Mary Kenny: Debate rages about how many children is too many


Should families limit the number of babies they have according to their means? The British culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, raised something of a storm over the past few days by suggesting just that: "Don't have children unless you can pay for them."

The Labour leader Ed Miliband branded his remarks "abhorrent" and "cruel", but Mr Hunt was not reprimanded by any of Prime Minister David Cameron's administration.

In a sense, Jeremy Hunt was only articulating a traditional middle-class view of family life. Even before birth control became known, or considered acceptable (it wasn't fully accepted, even for married couples, until 1958 by the Church of England) middle-class couples were restricting family size, by deferring marriage, and practising some element of marital restraint.

When I was growing up in Sandymount, Dublin 4, back in the 1950s and '60s, most of the neighbouring families had two, or perhaps three children. This was among Catholics and Protestants alike; you often saw a pattern of the heir and the spare, and then one for luck or two little girls, and then a third child where the couple had tried for a son. Or the other way about. There was a minority of larger families. One wealthy local family -- successful Dublin turf accountants -- had six offspring, and, by the time they were young adults, they all had motor cars, being fabulous American imports with tail fins.

But, generally, our neighbourhood middle-class families did not have large families, and usually not more children than they could afford.

Yet over the river by Ringsend, then a strong working-class community, families always seemed to be teeming. In those little two-up, two-down terraced houses between the bottle factory and the gas works, families of 10, 12 and 14 children were raised. And often very successfully raised. Ringsend was a genuine working-class community; that is, most families were in work. You didn't hear of people lolling around on benefits. There wasn't much in the way of benefits, and the work ethic was genuinely esteemed.

But there was also, evidently, a robust and healthy marital sex life, reflecting the Italian saying that the conjugal bed is "the poor man's opera".

This picture of a more inhibited bourgeoisie in contrast to easier working-class conjugality was common. George Orwell observed it in his researches for 'The Road to Wigan Pier'. Middle-class couples would wait, save, and defer marriage, until they could afford a home, and afford to bring children into the world. Whereas working-class youngsters started their sex life earlier, accepted that babies would follow marriage, and moved in with the in-laws until they could get on a housing list.

So what's so shocking about a British minister saying what middle-class people have privately believed for ages? What makes it controversial is that the context has changed.

Firstly, in modern societies, the state contributes substantially to childcare, with the child benefit allowance. This subtly alters the government's sense of entitlement to have opinions on family size. And Hunt's statement is, anyway, part of a budgetary programme of cutting down child benefits.

Secondly, there is the unspoken but well understood question of immigration, and the widespread fear, amply borne out by a visit to a maternity ward, that immigrant mothers are more fertile than mothers from the host community. A Conservative minister giving signals about making responsible choices in fertility might be perceived as trying to rein in all those fertile Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Somalis (who vote Labour anyway).

Thirdly, there is social anxiety about the 'feckless underclass', who allegedly go about producing endless progeny just for the state benefits involved. Huge efforts are made to halt teenage pregnancy, with only patchy results. As the sociologist Charles Murray has observed, sex is fun and babies are sweet, and you get housed when you have one, so what's not to like -- in a teenager's short-term thinking?

Recently, some alarm was raised over "Feckless Britain's Poster Boy" -- 25-year-old Tynesider Keith Macdonald, an unemployed lad who, by his own admission, spends much of his day at the local pub playing the fruit machines. Keith has fathered (so far) 15 children by 14 different young women. It is calculated that Keith's offspring are currently costing the British taxpayer some £2m (€2.3m) a year in benefits.

Birth control pioneers such as Marie Stopes didn't plan for things to turn out like this. The feckless underclass were supposed to be the ones reducing their fertility (preferably sterilised altogether, according to Stopes's eugenics), while the intellectual elite were supposed to be the ones breeding. The opposite has happened. Graduates are having abortions, while the likes of Keith and his baby-mothers go on merrily producing babies.

Population is always a touchy subject, and the rise of the climate change lobby has made it even touchier. Some environmentalists claim that since it is human activity which is causing global warming and all that damage to the eco-system, it is people who should be culled.

Pro-natalists point out, by contrast, that if the current economies are to recover, and be maintained, they will need a rising generation to propel that recovery. Pensions will collapse altogether if the ratio of pensioners to active young workers is seriously distorted.

This was neatly summed up by an Irishwoman who gave birth to four children while living in Belgium. Visibly pregnant with her fifth child, a neighbour remarked tartly: "Ah, Madame Murphy, having another child on our generous benefits, I see!"

She had heard the crack before and had her answer ready. "No, Madame de Kuyper, having another child to pay for your generous pensions!"

Irish Independent